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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"Olga, Mama, and Mugsey" by Robert Iulo - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist


Olga, Mama, and Mugsey


Robert Iulo


The neighborhood was known as Fulton Ferry, although the ferry stopped running when the bridge was built a hundred years before. I lived in a loft there, under the Brooklyn Bridge just across the street from the East River. Most of my space was used as a studio where I did portfolios for models and entertainers and any other photography jobs that came my way.

Back then, in the seventies, what later became known as DUMBO was a gritty waterfront neighborhood. The Brooklyn piers were still active with trucks lining up in the middle of the night waiting to load and unload, and there was a metal recycling facility just about where the River Café would eventually open. Most of the buildings were run-down warehouses and small factories built in the nineteenth century, and the people living there were musicians and artists in illegal lofts like I was. The whole area was buzzing with activity during the day but quiet at night and on weekends. Chances were that anyone you saw on the street at those times lived there, and since so few of us did live there, we all got to know one another. We were like pioneers staking our claim on an unsettled corner of Brooklyn.

Olga Bloom was one of my neighbors. She lived on a barge. She got it for a song, refurbished its interior with recycled and donated materials, and had it towed to a dilapidated pier at the foot of Fulton Street. A small section was reserved for living space leaving the rest for chamber music recitals.

 Sometimes at night, I would go to the pier and look at the skyline across the river. I could hear Olga playing her violin through the steel walls of her barge. She had a scruffy but cute dog named Mama who would come out to play whenever someone was on the pier. One night Mama wasn’t on the pier, but another dog was. He looked something like a German Sheppard but not quite, and with no collar, I figured he was a stray. He poked my hand with his snout a few times until I scratched his ears. It didn’t end there because he followed me across the street to the door of my building and looked at me sadly as I started to go in. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt if I took him home for some fresh water and scrounged up something for him to eat. He was well behaved and ate politely, although he was clearly very hungry. When he finished eating, he circled my welcome mat a few times, then lay down and went to sleep. Seeing that, I decided to let him spend the night, and I would send him on his way in the morning.

I awoke the next day with him standing beside my bed nudging me. It was time to let him go, but I knew I couldn’t just put him out on the street. So I took him for a walk and then started calling friends to see if any of them wanted a dog. I gave him a big build-up but had no immediate takers. I bought him a leash, collar, and enough dog food for a few days. Then I thought of Olga. She had plenty of room and already had one dog, so maybe she’d like another.

I walked him down to the pier, and Olga was on deck doing some gardening.

She noticed him immediately and said, “Hey, when did you get a dog?”

“He’s a stray I found here last night. He followed me home and …” then I went on about what a great dog he was.

As I was making my pitch, Mama came out, and they started to play.

I asked, “Don’t you think he’d be a perfect companion for Mama? Look at how well they get along.”

Olga replied, “No thanks. One is enough.”

As she was petting him she said, “So what did you name him?”

“I didn’t name him. He’s not my dog.”

“Well, I think he’s your dog, at least for a little while. He needs a name.”

We were looking him over, trying to come up with something suggested by his appearance, when Olga said, “I guess he’s kind of a street urchin, so how about Mugsey? You remember, one of the East Side Kids from the old movies?”

I had been resisting naming him, but I couldn’t resist Mugsey. It suited him perfectly. So now I had a dog, “at least for a little while,” named Mugsey.

Living with Mugsey became a real adventure. He couldn’t keep from chasing garbage trucks and trying to bite their tires. He loved to sniff the cinnamon residue on a vent outside a spice grinding factory just make himself sneeze. Whenever I had him out at night, he’d find a waterfront rat and, after a brief standoff, manage to grab it by the back of the neck and kill it with a shake. Then he’d proudly come back to me as if expecting a compliment. He was so friendly and entertaining that my customers all liked him. I’d often set up shots of elegantly dressed models against rough industrial backgrounds in the local streets, and Mugsey would accompany us. Sometimes Mama would come along too.

As I was photographing a dancer in a graceful pose against a rugged masonry wall, her eyes widened, and her dramatic expression gave way to a grin as she pointed to what was happening behind me. Mugsey and Mama were mating, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them. It never occurred to me that something like this would happen. I didn’t know how old Mama was, but I thought of her as elderly. She had grey whiskers, and with a name like Mama, I imagined her as being senior to Mugsey and not sexually appealing to him. I was mistaken. They finally ended their very long embrace, rolled around on their backs, stretched a bit, and then continued playing as if nothing had happened. The look on that dancer’s face for those remaining photos could never be duplicated.

I had to face Olga and explain what happened. She took it calmly and said she thought Mama was too old to have pups even if she did have sex.

She said, “Let’s not worry about it and see what happens.”

We were both mistaken about Mama. About eight weeks later, Olga invited me in to see something in her closet.  Amidst a pile of shoes, Mama was nursing six pups that looked an awful lot like their father. To help with child support, I supplied Olga with puppy chow until all six were adopted. Not long after that, as the area became more popular, I had to move out of my loft because of a rent increase I couldn’t afford. I gave up photography and decided to get a real job and a real apartment; unfortunately it was one that didn’t allow dogs. By then,the nearby Eagle Wearhouse had been converted into luxurious legal apartments, and a young couple who moved in agreed to take Mugsey. I knew I’d miss him but was glad he wouldn’t have to leave his home on the waterfront where he could catch rats, sniff cinnamon, and hang out with his old girlfriend Mamma.


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